Bill O'Reilly finally admits it: I'm really obnoxious!

Stewart and Colbert suss out the truth about the Fox host: He knows he's obnoxious, and he knows it's all an act

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published October 17, 2014 3:05PM (EDT)

Bill O'Reilly           (Fox News)
Bill O'Reilly (Fox News)

Recent coverage of Bill O’Reilly’s appearance on Jon Stewart’s "The Daily Show" has highlighted the showdown between the two on the question of white privilege.  We have seen multiple stories emphasize the encounter as a “face off” that got so intense that at times the two shouted at each other. But here's another way of looking at it: Bill O’Reilly just can't resist Jon Stewart's logic.

Stewart has a long history of bringing out O’Reilly’s reasonable side. In fact, each time the two have sparred Stewart has found a way to coax out some of O’Reilly’s most moderate thinking.  Remember when the two debated in the “Rumble in the Air Conditioned Auditorium” before the last presidential election? That encounter led to O’Reilly actually admitting that one of the greatest problems in our nation is sensationalized news media.  He confessed that as long as news was big business, it would never be good for the well-being of our democracy.   Stewart also came really close back in 2011 to getting O’Reilly to admit to Fox’s inflammatory and selective coverage. Most times the two face off, Stewart has been able to lure some reason out of O’Reilly.

And this is why the encounters between the two hosts are so interesting.  They help reveal that, besides the obvious benefits of ratings boosts, they enjoy debating each other.  Stewart finds O’Reilly to be the one Fox News pundit who has a glimmer of reason, an occasional affinity for logic, and the ability to question the rampant sensationalism of the news media.  In contrast, Stewart does not have pundits like Ann Coulter or Sean Hannity on his show.  There simply would be no room for debate with blowhards like them. O’Reilly, for his part, seems to truly enjoy sparring with Stewart.  He often complements him on being a “smart guy.”

Even though O’Reilly may be one of the most moderate pundits in the Fox News line up, it’s worth remembering that he is also one of its most arrogant and that he has no trouble advancing outrageous ideas that do nothing more than stir up hysteria and Republican fundamentalism.  But what makes him different from other right-wing pundits is his occasional ability to display self-awareness.  One of the most telling lines from the “white privilege” showdown was when O’Reilly retorted to an audience member:  “You think I’m sitting here because I’m white? I’m sitting here because I’m obnoxious, not because I’m white.”

It’s also worth recalling the exchange between O’Reilly and Stephen Colbert when the Fox News pundit first appeared on Colbert’s show to mock his parody of him.  In that encounter O’Reilly admitted that his show was an act: "Hannity would kick my butt," said O'Reilly. "I'm effete. I'm not a tough guy. This is all an act."  Colbert replied: "If you're an act, then what am I?" It was an exceptionally revealing moment for news media. One of the top news pundits openly admitted to the fact that he was performing a character.

So not only did Stewart get O’Reilly to admit to the existence of white privilege, he also got him to admit to the fact that much of his job is based on being “obnoxious”—not on informing an audience or helping frame critical debates in useful ways, but on performing the role of someone who has staunch right-wing views.  O’Reilly has made a career out of being a bloviating host who shouts at his guests, takes extreme positions, and bullies his audience into agreeing with him.  And this from the moderate voice of Fox News. The big moment, then, from the showdown was that O’Reilly didn’t only recognize his white privilege it’s that he recognized his obnoxious privilege.

As long as the news media is dominated by the discourse of obnoxious privilege, our nation will have to continue to rely on satire news to help correct the spin.  Obnoxious privilege does not only rest on advantages of race, class, and gender; it also depends on the privilege of constantly using unreasoned, unsupported hype as facts and getting away with it. Meanwhile it has been the satirists that have offered counter arguments to the hype, consistently pointing out inaccuracies in news media and exposing the logical fallacies that dominate cable news “debates.” It is certainly noteworthy that it has been comedians like Colbert and Stewart that have been able to coax reason out of O’Reilly.

O’Reilly is the most dangerous and the most reasonable of Fox News pundits.  He knows what he is doing, but he often does it way too well.  He knows it’s an act, but he keeps on doing it.  He shows glimmers of reason, moments of sanity, but then retreats to his bloviating shtick.  But maybe the satirists can turn him around. Colbert recently asked O’Reilly to come out as Republican.  Maybe this exchange with Stewart will lead him to come out as a rational human being.  Stewart closed the interview saying, “You, Bill O’Reilly, can lead the flock of the Fox faithful to a better place.”

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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Bill O'reilly Fox News Jon Stewart The Daily Show